Altmetric Blog

Do scientists and members of the public engage with research differently on social media?

Cat Williams, 9th November 2016

This is a guest post contributed by Gwilym Lockwood. Gwilym did his PhD in the neuroscience of language at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He now works as a trainee data visualisation consultant for The Information Lab in London.

It can feel like the divide between scientists and the public is becoming increasingly partisan, with the media portraying scientists as out of touch and the public as reluctant to engage with research. One way to examine this divide is to look at how scientists and members of the public interact with research on social media. Do the public tweet about science? Do the public and scientists tweet about different articles? And if so, which topics do each find more important?

I took the top 10,000 research articles with Altmetric Attention Scores ranging from 250 up to 7874. For some metrics of how much attention an article gets on social media, Altmetric can also track whether the associated accounts are science professionals (i.e. researchers, practitioners, and science communicators) or members of the public.

Firstly, let’s have a look at how Twitter activity by professionals and members of the public changes with article popularity. Because the data is skewed towards the lower end, I have plotted the log Altmetric Attention Score rather than the score itself.

This graph shows that the more popular an article is in general, the more attention it receives from members of the public relative to science professionals:

log altmetric score and tweets


In other words, members of the public tweet more about articles than professionals do, and that gap grows as an article gets more attention. Altmetric does slightly underestimate the number of science professionals (as, for example, a scientist may use Twitter anonymously or not in a professional capacity), but this still highlights the fact that most online attention for popular articles comes from public rather than professional interest.

The next step is to look at which articles science professionals tweet about, and which the public tweet about. When I took the top fifty most tweeted-about articles by professionals and the top fifty most tweeted-about articles by the public, 17 were in both lists. This is a fair amount of overlap, which is reassuring; it’s not like the two groups have completely different interests. However, looking at the simple tweet count doesn’t quite capture the relative preference for an article by one group over the other. Instead, I calculated the log ratio of professional:public tweets, which shows how much more likely a professional is to tweet about a particular article compared to a member of the public.

The top twenty most preferred lists for each group are below:

Position Title Topic
1 So you want to be a computational biologist? Science for scientists
2 Unique features of a global human ectoparasite identified through sequencing of the bed bug genome Genetics
3 A reanalysis of mouse ENCODE comparative gene expression data Genetics
4 Common scientific and statistical errors in obesity research Health / diet
5 Development and clinical application of an integrative genomic approach to personalized cancer therapy Genetics
6 Identification of a large set of rare complete human knockouts Genetics
7 An atlas of active enhancers across human cell types and tissues Genetics
8 Host-mediated sugar oxidation promotes post-antibiotic pathogen expansion Microbiology
9 Viruses are a dominant driver of protein adaptation in mammals Microbiology (and genetics)
10 Qualitative research and The BMJ Science for scientists
11 Hospital Prescribing of Opioids to Medicare Beneficiaries Health / diet
12 Effects of Saturated Fat, Polyunsaturated Fat, Monounsaturated Fat, and Carbohydrate on Glucose-Insulin Homeostasis: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomised Controlled Feeding Trials Health / diet
13 The Biomarker GlycA Is Associated with Chronic Inflammation and Predicts Long-Term Risk of Severe Infection Genetics
14 Identification and characterization of essential genes in the human genome Genetics
15 Effects of dietary pulse consumption on body weight: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials Health / diet
16 Dynamics and associations of microbial community types across the human body. Microbiology
17 Highly Parallel Genome-wide Expression Profiling of Individual Cells Using Nanoliter Droplets Genetics
18 Gibbon genome and the fast karyotype evolution of small apes Genetics
19 A Quick Introduction to Version Control with Git and GitHub Science for scientists
20 Genetic variance estimation with imputed variants finds negligible missing heritability for human height and body mass index. Genetics


Position Title Topic
1 Gender Differences, Motivation, and Empathic Accuracy: When it Pays to Understand Psychology
2 Money and Mental Illness: A Study of the Relationship Between Poverty and Serious Psychological Problems Mental Health
3 Overview of active cesium contamination of freshwater fish in Fukushima and Eastern Japan Radiation
4 Gain of chromosome band 7q11 in papillary thyroid carcinomas of young patients is associated with exposure to low-dose irradiation Radiation
5 Renal and Extrarenal Effects of Gum Arabic (Acacia Senegal) – What Can be Learned from Animal Experiments? Animal Experimentation
6 A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled of oral matricaria recutita (chamomile) extract therapy of generalized anxiety disorder Mental Health
7 Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt Mental Health
8 Emission of spherical cesium-bearing particles from an early stage of the Fukushima nuclear accident Radiation
9 New Vibrations Chemistry
10 A taxonomic review of the centipede genus Scolopendra Linnaeus, 1758 (Scolopendromorpha, Scolopendridae) in mainland Southeast Asia, with description of a new species from Laos Centipedes
11 Urinary bladder carcinogenesis induced by chronic exposure to persistent low-dose ionizing radiation after Chernobyl accident Radiation
12 Airborne Plutonium and Non-Natural Uranium from the Fukushima DNPP Found at 120 km Distance a Few Days after Reactor Hydrogen Explosions Radiation
13 Measurement and comparison of individual external doses of high-school students living in Japan, France, Poland and Belarus — the D-shuttle project Radiation
14 Whole-body counter surveys of over 2700 babies and small children in and around Fukushima Prefecture 33 to 49 months after the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident. Radiation
15 Attending a concert reduces glucocorticoids, progesterone and the cortisol/DHEA ratio Mental Health
16 Deposition of fission and activation products after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant accident. Radiation
17 Synchronizing education to adolescent biology: ‘let teens sleep, start school later’ Education
18 Antidrug antibodies in psoriasis: a systematic review Health
19 Comprehensive whole-body counter surveys of Miharu-town school children for three consecutive years after the Fukushima NPP accident Radiation
20 Thyroid ultrasound findings in a follow-up survey of children from three Japanese prefectures: Aomori, Yamanashi, and Nagasaki Radiation


Professionals tweet more about a variety of things, with the main focus being genetics, as well as diet and health, and topics related to science and aimed at scientists. Meanwhile, the public have a clear favourite topic. Ten of the top twenty articles most tweeted about by members of the public compared to professionals are about radiation and the dangers of nuclear power, and other topics of interest include mental health and wellbeing. Some of the focus on the Fukushima disaster comes from Japanese people who may be directly or indirectly affected, but those accounts don’t create this effect alone; the interest in radiation is global, and this isn’t balanced out by people tweeting about research relating to other disasters.

This is illuminating. It shows that the dangers of nuclear power are a clear concern for the public compared to scientists, and has implications for how scientists engage with the public about the topic. Perhaps scientists could tweet more about the topic. Perhaps scientists could use this information to apply for grants for more research into nuclear power and safety. Perhaps there needs to be better education on the topic and more discussion about it in mainstream media.

Both scientists and members of the public engage with scientific research on social media, which shows that they have far more in common than is often made out. That said, there is a difference in the topics that the public and scientists are interested in, which may have implications for how people gauge the wider impact of scientific research.

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